Is This The First Commercial for the “Celestial Jukebox” ?

I saw this on my TeeVee last night:

The spot ran during Tuesday’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” (which of course I was watching via TiVo two days later – that’s how I manage to be both ahead of the curve AND behind it at the same time…)

Unfortunately, it’s a really dumb ad. Maybe the copywriters need to find a new profession. At the very least, they seem to have only a dim view of what they’re actually advertising here, which in my humble opinion is a complete revolution in how music is distributed and “consumed” (I put that word in quotes because once it’s all stored in the cloud, the term will no longer be pertinent but we’ll probably keep using it anyway because old verbal habits die hard…)

Even though I could have skipped it like I do most commercials (lately I only stop to watch iPad and iPhone ‘there’s an app for that…” commercials), I stopped and watched this one.  The irony is that since Lala.com announced that it will be shutting down at the end of the month, I have been seriously contemplating subscribing to Rhapsody — which, as the ad does manage to demonstrate, is available on the iPhone (also available for Android).

Clearly, Rhapsody sees the future and recognizes the gaping hole in what is currently available. With ads like this they are making the effort necessary to fill that gap.  In the meantime, the tech pundits continue to speculate about when Spotify will be available in the US (Netherlands is supposed to get it later this month), MOG.com is gaining traction, and iEverybody is wondering if Steve Jobs will finally unveil Apple’s plans for iTunes-in-the-cloud at next month’s World Wide Developer’s Conference.

In the meantime, there is Rhaspody making the case for “All the music you want for just $10 a month.”  And there is surely some measurable fraction of the audience seeing these commercials who will give it a try – and another fraction who will stick with it.  And then the purveyors of music will no longer be selling tracks for a buck, they’ll have to settle for whatever fraction of $10 their content and delivery entitles them to.

I am curious about one thing in this ad, the part where the woman with the iPhone says “…so I’m downloading tons of stuff…”  I wonder if they’re misusing the term, because my understanding of Rhapsody is that it’s a streaming service.  I don’t think you actually get to “download”  your own copies of “stuff.”  But I do think you get to listen to all the stuff you want to (up to the limit of the Rhapsody library, which is something on the order of 8-million tracks, which is something like 45 years worth of continuous music…).

But the point is made, and it’s good that the young-and-hip Daily Show audience (does that include me?) is getting the message: “with Rhapsody you don’t pay per song, we can listen to all we want…” This may well be the first time that a large audience is hearing such a message, and it will certainly give them pause.

What remains to be seen is if the commercial is misusing the word “download.”  I may have to subscribe to Rhapsody to find out.

Artistry of the Guitar – Roanoke

Last month, I had occasion to spend an evening with Ken Bonfield and Steve Davison, two world-class finger style instrumentalists who travel and perform as “Artistry of the Guitar.”

Click this photo to see a slide show of Ken and Steve performing at the Third Street Coffee House in Roanoke, Virginia. Click the “play” button in the lower right corner of the player to listen to Ken’s recording Zephyr and start the slide show.

Ken Bonfield and Steve Davison = "Artistry of the Guitar"

Artistry of the Guitar – April 2010

Last month, I had occasion to spend an evening with Ken Bonfield and Steve Davison, two world-class finger style instrumentalists who travel and perform as “Artistry of the Guitar.”

Click this photo to see a slide show of Ken and Steve performing at the Third Street Coffee House in Roanoke, Virginia.  Click the “play” button in the lower right corner of the player to listen to Ken’s recording Zephyr and start the slide show.

Ken Bonfield and Steve Davison = “Artistry of the Guitar”

The Day The Music Died: Lala.com Is Shutting Down on 5/31

This morning I awoke to this news:

In what has already been a rather clumsy week for Apple, Inc., what with their draconian pursuit of the Gizmodo guy over the leaked iPhone prototype, now comes the news that Apple is shelving one of the most progressive music services on the Internets (which Apple acquired earlier this year).  I’m sure Michael Robertson must be relishing this particular development.

For those of you who are not familiar with Lala.com, just do a search of this website and you’ll see that I’ve been extolling its virtues for over a year as an important element in the inevitable drift toward the Celestial Jukebox — which I have defined simply as “whatever you want to hear, whenever you want to hear it, wherever you are, if the bastards ever let us.”

So score one for the bastards.  At least temporarily.

When Apple acquired Lala, there was of course absolutely no indication what the proud new parent company planned to do with its errant adopted child.  Lala’s business model — essentially ‘renting’ music instead of buying it for a fraction of the purchase price  — presents a direct challenge to iTunes  still dominant 99 cent purchase-only model.

So it is easy to rush to the conclusion that Apple has thrown Lala under the bus, particularly since this announcement comes during a week when Apple is being universally reviled as the the personification of the very Big Brother it challenged with its famous 1984 Mac ad.  And that may very well be their strategy here, to shelve Lala and continue selling music for 99c per track.  If that’s the case, it’s a strategy doomed ultimately to failure.

You also have to wonder what sort of coincidence is it that this shut-down announcement arrives on the same day that Apple announces the availability of the iPad 3G.  Coincidence?  Maybe not.

Ultimately, I don’t think it matters what Apple does with Lala.  If Steve  honestly believes that there is no future for streaming subscription services, if he truly believes that in the age of infinite storage and bandwidth people are still determined to “own” a tiny library of music when the technology offers the “access” to the ever expanding universe of all the music that has ever been recorded, then he really is off his meds.  Technology is destiny, and destiny in this case is the Celestial Jukebox.  This is just another case of the bastards standing in the way.

Or is it?

Steve Jobs has not driven Apple to the threshold of global domination by being stupid.  And throwing Lala under the bus is stupid.  So I have to believe there’s another shoe to drop.

I have absolutely nothing to substantiate this expectation.  I have after all discovered in the past year or so that I do have an inordinate capacity for self delusion and wishful thinking, and maybe this is just more of that.  But I still believe that sometime later this year Apple is going to announce that it has rolled the guts of Lala.com into iTunes, and that rather than suppressing the inevitable, Apple is going to embrace it, advance it in ways that we can not yet imagine, and once again transform the music business.

Here’s what I still believe: that sometime later this year – maybe in concert with the introduction of the next iPhone, or maybe when the new iPhone OS4 (with limited 3rd-party multitasking) rolls out for the iPad, Apple is going to introduce a cloud-storage program with a streaming subscription service. I think Steve Jobs is prescient enough to see that that model is the ultimate promise of all this technology.  I don’t think he’s foolish enough to think that he alone can stand in the path of the inevitable rush of technological progress, even if he does own iTunes.

So we wait for the other shoe to drop.  There is another chapter to this story.  Maybe it’s not the ending I want to see.  Maybe Steve keeps telling us we have to pay 99cents per track to gather digital music.  If he does, then he is just clearing a wider path for MOG, Rhapsody, or even Spotify (if it ever comes to this country) to push iTunes and its antiquated “unit purchase” model out of the market place.  Or maybe Steve will do it himself.

I mean, if indeed Lala is truly dead and never to be resurrected in another form, what will I and thousands of others do to replace it?  I for one have gotten pretty used to listening to stuff I’ve never heard before in its entirely for free, at least once.  If I can’t get that capability through an iTunes version of Lala, hell, I’ll just hold my nose and go subscribe to Rhapsody.  And you really think Steve Jobs is gonna let THAT happen?

But like I said, after three decades of PCs and Windows, I don’t now have a house full of Apple products because Steve Jobs is stupid.  So you all groan and gnash your teeth over today’s announcement of the closing of Lala, and I will share your disappointment and fear of the future.  But I don’t think this story is over by a long shot.

Is This The Solution to Dwindling CD Sales?

Maybe soon, even "swiping" a card will be old news.

We’ve all heard over and over again that the revenue generated  from CD sales has been plunging over the last decade.  The music “industry” is decomposing dinosaur, even as  music itself flourishes in millions of hearts and venues.  But lately I’ve been hearing anecdotal accounts of declining sales from that final refuge where CD sales actually still make sense — at touring artists’ gigs, where the physical product still has some “souvenir” value.

But in the past few weeks I’ve also been reading about devices  that convert your cell phone (most typically the iPhone, y’all get with the program now…) into a credit card swiper.  The most commonly referenced gizmo is the Square, shown in the photo that accompanies this post.

This morning I’m reading more about the growing popularity of these highly mobile transaction processors:

Light wallets are not a problem for Joe Mangrum, a sidewalk sand painter in New York, who has been using Square to take donations from passers-by and sell copies of his book. Sales have increased sharply since he started accepting credit cards on his iPhone, he said. “I’ve made the sale as opposed to twiddling my thumbs because they don’t have the cash.”

The new services could have the biggest impact on the smallest businesses, like farm stands or house cleaners, that accept only cash and checks because they do not have stores to house credit card terminals and do not want to enter into complicated, long-term relationships with credit card companies.

“…farm stands or house cleaners…”?  How ’bout we add to that list “itinerant troubadours” who rely on the sale of CDs and other merchandise at their shows to support their chosen livelihood?

But wait, here’s an even better scenario:

Brian Kusler, 40, a software engineer, is already helping dollar bills join Susan B. Anthony coins as collector’s items. After he polished off grilled lamb and zinfandel at a San Francisco restaurant recently, his dining companion paid the bill and asked him for his share. Instead of hunting down an A.T.M., the two bumped their iPhones together, and Mr. Kusler wirelessly transferred his part of the bill, about $100.

I’ve got “Bump” on my iPhone and have to say it’s a pretty slick approach to exchanging information.  So let’s ramp the concept up a notch:

Another issue I’m hearing from my traveling troubadour friends is how difficult it is to just carry enough inventory on their travels – especially when they take their show overseas.  Download cards offer a partial solution but still require some kind of monetary exchange to complete the transaction.

So this is what the world needs now:  Let’s call it “iTroubadour” — the artist bumps his iPhone with a fan’s, the dollars are instantly transferred into the artists’ account… and a download is initiated on the fan’s unit that transfers the purchased music to his smart phone.

And then we can all stand around after the show and watch the artists and fans punching each other.  Cool beans, huh?

I hope I haven’t just given away a million dollar idea.  I mean, if it’s occurred to me, surely it’s also occurred to somebody who can actually DO something about it.

Hello, Bump people, are you listening? I want that app yesterday.

Got RSS?

I admit, I’m pretty late to the Google Reader / RSS feed party. I finally figured out the Google Reader about a year ago and now it occupies a central place in my daily media diet.  More recently, I’ve started using an app called “New Rack” on my iPhone and iPad (it’s better at redirecting me to the original posts than gReader, which seems to always want me to stay in the Googleverse).

The acronym “RSS” stands for “Real Simple Syndication,” and while at times it seems not all that simple to implement, it should nevertheless be part of any active communicator’s regimen. Your website needs to have an RSS feed – which is just one reason I am recommending WordPress as the foundation of your web presence these days.

For example: I follow at least two dozen individual musicians; by follow, I mean I subscribe to their individual e-mail newsletters. But that is starting to get tedious and hard to follow. There is no centralized way to keep that input in a single place.

There is another handful of musicians whose RSS feeds I subscribe to.  Their stuff is all in one place, and the Reader tells me immediately when there is something new to open and read.

So if you’re not already familiar with RSS, have a look at this video:

Click the screenshot to play "RSS in Plain English"

Then, if your website is not already configured to provide an RSS feed, make it so.

Oh, and, a generous and grateful nod to Ariel Hyatt for posting this to her CyberPR blog this morning.  I, of course, received word of it through her RSS feed….

McLuhan Redux

“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”

— Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage (1964)

Chuck Raasch, Gannett National Writer

Though he has probably never heard of Marshall McLuhan, Gannett political commentator Chuck Raasch has found evidence that the medium is indeed the message.

It seems Mr. Raasch has suddenly discovered that politics is undergoing the same sort of transformation that the music biz started to experience ten or fifteen years ago; in both cases, the dislocation is the direct result of new technologies:

“This is not normal in our lifetimes,” Martin said of the volatility. “This was not possible in the television era. You are seeing massive volatility because of the technology. … And you are going to see that just increase and increase, almost exponentially, over the next several (election) cycles.”

The volatility comes from tectonic, technology-driven power migration away from big organizing institutions, like corporations and political parties, to a dispersed universe of what conservative blogger and author Glenn Reynolds calls “an army of Davids.”

As in David vs. Goliath.

I’m not really sure why this suddenly qualifies as a space-and-ink-justifying revelation, but it’s nonetheless true, and it’s always comforting to see some well-paid pundit reiterate what McLuhan first expressed 40+ years ago.

The point is, the people who are showing up for these “Tea Party” rallies and other fringe forms of expression are not only expressing their fear of an unfamiliar political landscape: the entire media environment that they’re familiar with is disintegrating.

It’s not just that the information they’re receiving is unfamiliar or unfriendly (you know, that ‘hopey-changey stuff…), but the fact that they way the information is reaching then is totally unfamiliar.  That’s what’s causing the reactions we’re seeing — the fact that the whole foundation of peoples information environment is crumbling.  They just don’t know how to process the information in a sane or rational way because the processes themselves are so new and unfamiliar.

Remember, there would have been no Reformation had Gutenberg’s printing press not made possible the rapid dissemination of Martin Luther’s heresies. That was like five hundred years ago, and we’re still living with the consequences of that disruption….

Mental Health Break

This latest send-up of the “Downfall” parody that has been in circulation on the Interwebs for a couple of years now neatly sums up a lot of the issues around new media -v- old, social media and audience participation, and the copyright issues around satire and parody:

It also performs the neat trick — if you’re any kind of  McLuhanist, new-media, please-let-the-fucking-dinosaurs-DIE already advocate —  of actually making you feel empathy for “Hitler.”

E-Mail: What Else Have You Got?

It’s pretty much a given that effective e-mail contact is an indispensable part of growing and communicating with your fan base.  No news there.  But now that everybody is onto that game (let me see now, how many e-mails am I getting from musicians every week?  Too many to count…), it might be worthwhile to take a moment to review some important points re: maintaining an effective – and regular – e-mail campaign.

I ran across this item from the CDBaby “DIY Musicians” blog (which I follow regularly with my Google Reader), and one point struck me in particular, so I’m posting it here as well:

2. Give them something – Don’t just send them a bunch of words on a page. Give your fans a picture, a YouTube video, a link to download a live song, b-side, or demo. Heck, even a picture that relates to your topics or catches their attention is better than nothing.

The rest of the post is pretty straightforward, maybe even obvious (“Don’t spam!”  Well, duh!).  But that point seems worth noting.  Your messages should be more than “I’ve got these shows… I’ve got this new CD… please send me some of your money thankyouverymuch…”

The central principal of the new paradigm is “contact and engage.”  And that means doing something more than listing your shows.  If you’re going to contact your audience, make sure the contact is as worthwhile for them as it is for you.  Even if it’s just sharing a photo that one of your fans posted to flickr.

Like Things Aren’t Tough Enough Already?

One more step across the “event horizon”?

This item came up last night in the course of our discussion for the Nashville Feed podcast. Amid the continuing decline in sales of physical music products (CDs, LPs, etc.) Reuters reports that for the first time, digital sales (downloads via iTunes, Amazon, etc.) are not taking up any of the slack (not that they ever took up much of it):

On the downside, digital tracks recorded their first year-on-year quarterly sales decline, falling 0.9 percent to 312.4 million in the first quarter from 315.4 million in first-quarter 2009, when track sales climbed 13 percent year on year.

Unfortunately, there are no additional statistics that offer any further insight into this first-time-ever dip in download sales.  It could just be the economic tenor of the times, people spending less money on entertainments, or any number of things.

But I’m wondering if this peak in downloads implies the arrival of a bigger shift.  Perhaps it tells us that people who have been using their computers to “buy” their music are finally beginning to discover that they don’t have to “buy” it at all.

What I’d like to see is a corresponding study that assess the shift in habits.  Are people actually “listening” to more music online as they discover how much they can access through those channels? Are sites like Pandora, Last.fm, even the much disparaged Rhapsody or the mercurial Spotify (still not officially available in the US) gaining traffic even as iTunes and Amazon are reporting a decrease in their unit sales?

On some gut level, I think that’s what’s happening here.  At some point in the not-to0-distant future, I think we are going to look back at “Q4-09” as the high water mark for digital delivery by purchased downloads, and we’ll begin see “Q1-10” as the point of demarcation of the shift from “ownership” of music to “access.”